'How do I know?'

Shared Study

A grayscale picture of three people sitting on a bench together

How do I know?

You can change the emphasis in that sentence for multiple meanings. How is knowing done? What counts as knowledge? What can be known, and to whom?

Take the human, for example. Who counts as human, and to whom, has changed over time and space. At various moments in our history and present, racialised bodies, queer folks, people with disabilities, the mentally ill and women have all been designated as less-than-human in dominant discourse. Yet, we claim to know what human means and name whole faculties after it.

Knowledge is this thing we do as people and seek as students. But, how is this knowing actually done? We have courses and curriculums that claim to produce expertise and efficiencies but these are geared towards knowledge as a singular activity. Knowledge is something that is shared in the doing and distributing. Knowledge is something we do communally: as students, we engage in learning collectively, tackling issues in the classroom together.

Despite this shared sense of knowledge and knowing, we write papers by ourselves and get individual grades. What would it look like if we took the collective nature of knowledge and knowing more seriously? I’m not talking about group presentations and peer feedback, but what if we fundamentally restructured how we think knowing comes about? As well as what is worth knowing.

I’ve sat in classes where my peers have spoken about their personal experiences—something common and welcome in Gender Studies—and I’ve felt resistance to this form of knowledge. Neoliberal individualist indoctrination tells me I’ve paid tuition to learn from teachers with PhDs and histories of publishing, not the person sitting next to me.

The knowledge I’ve gained from my teachers has, of course, been fundamental to my education. However, I wonder what I’ve missed when a classmate has lost my attention because I’ve been caught up in the race of deadlines, assessments and exams. I imagine how different my perspective could’ve been if I didn’t view classes as part of a linear trajectory that resulted in my degree. If I no longer felt the pressure of a looming exam paper, would I have listened more closely?

Looking back at my Master’s degree, I can remember the lectures that shook my world and articles that changed my mind. But I also think about the smoke breaks where we talked about things that don’t end up in textbooks; the beer glasses that served as audiences to our dreams and frustrations; the poetry nights where I cried from laughter; and the sleepless whispered secrets on the train.

Outside of university, there is a different type of listening. Only one set of experiences ends up on my transcript: Contemporary Feminist Debates (course code MCRMV16017) 15 ECTS. But the best feminist debates I’ve had happened nowhere near a classroom.